The Importance of Incorporating Hills Into Your Training Program

The Importance of Incorporating Hills Into Your Training Program

“The hills are your friend!” I shouted encouragingly at my running buddy as we lumbered up yet another hill during her first half marathon. “THAT MAKES NO SENSE AT ALL!” she yelled back as we pushed forward one step at a time. I can see why, at mile 10 of a half marathon, the hills might not seem so friendly. But the reality is that when incorporated as part of a training program, hills are not only a great tool to help you get stronger – a hilly course can help you run faster on race day, too!

It stands to reason that a flat course will be the fastest on race day – after all, there are no hills to slow your speed and cause your heart rate to skyrocket. But, just like I told my running buddy, hills can be your friend. When we run on a flat surface for a long time, we’re engaging the same muscles over and over again, which causes them to fatigue. As a result, your calves, glutes, and quads can get trashed by the end of your race, causing you to slow down and possibly miss your goal. By contrast, hills offer a welcome change for the muscles in your legs and help spread the effort around ­– if you train properly and use them to your advantage! Here are some tips for incorporating hills into your next training program.

  1. Make hills a part of your easy runs: The least intimidating way to add hills into your training is to incorporate them into some of your easy runs. Hill training doesn’t have to involve sprints! Simply pick a route that includes a few hills and run it once a week or so at an easy pace. You’ll still get a good workout without the intimidation factor.
  2. Exit ramps and bridges are good substitutes: I live in a very hilly area, but not everyone does. If you’re in a flat part of the country, find a bridge or a low-traffic exit ramp to practice repeats on. It’s not ideal, but any incline is better than none at all!
  3. Hill repeats are your friend – no matter what pace!: When we think of hill repeats, we often think of sprinting up to the top of a hill until your lungs burst and then running back down. It doesn’t have to be that way! Even increasing your effort level slightly up a hill (just enough to elevate your heart rate higher than your average) is a good start. Then, jog or walk back down for recovery.
  4. Start small and build: This advice applies to everything – the size of the hills you’re training on, the number of repeats you’re doing, and the overall mileage of your workouts! Like anything else, it makes sense to start small and build up. If you want to start making hill repeats a part of your regular routine, for example, start out by doing 3. Gradually add on over the next few weeks and months until you hit your goal number.
  5. Think of hills as a strength workout: Remember, it’s not about speed when you’re running hills. Of course, your goal is to get faster, but that happens by getting stronger! Hills are like a strength workout for your legs, so you should expect to be sore after a tough workout. To help push yourself along, consider adding some squats (weighted or unweighted) to your routine, as well as some hip and glute strengthening exercises. You’ll be flying up those hills in no time!

It may not seem like it now, but incorporating hills into your training plan might mean you surprise yourself on race day. All of my PRs are on hilly courses, so it can be done! Now get out there and find some new ground to cover.

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